Istanbul is a vibrant city full of surprises. One of those surprises is the food. With a decent exchange rate for most North Americans and Europeans it is possible to eat like a king in Turkey on a relatively reasonable budget. As a budget traveler visiting from Denmark where food is ridiculously expensive I decided to splurge a bit. Luckily for me, I was able to connect with a good friend who had already scouted out the city. He introduced me to three restauraunts which were absolutely delightful! Prices for these meals averaged between 20 Turkish lira ($11 USD) and 30 Turkish lira ($17 USD) with a drink. While far more expensive than the 3 lira ($1.70 USD) kebabs which were available, for what we got, the price was a bargain compared to other European destinations.
Ciya Restaurant – Asian Side
Pronounced Chia, this delightful restaurant is located on the Asian side of Istanbul about five minutes from the main ferry dock. A series of several restaurants, Ciya‘s claim to fame is its amazing regional delicacies from throughout Turkey. Concerned that traditional foods were being lost, or were unavailable outside their native region, the founder of the restaurant set out to catalog and share Turkey’s rich (and incredibly diverse) culinary palate with Istanbul’s natives and visitors alike. The relatively small restaurant’s walls are decorated with articles from many of the world’s top food columns offering high praise for the freshness, variety and flair of the Turkish food the restaurant offers.
Despite displaying food in a semi-buffet style format it is all extremely fresh and cooked on the spot in an open kitchen located right as you enter the eating area. Situated across from the stoves and a wide variety of warm foods the staff has set up a cold food buffet with a wonderful mixture of fresh greens and rich Turkish deserts.
In addition to being fresh, all of the food is awash in color and well presented. Eager to dive in we cast off our jackets, scarves, gloves, hats, and gear (It had been snowing all day) and started to make the difficult decisions about what to eat. The way this restaurant works is based on weight. You pick what you want to sample from the wide variety of choices available, and then a waiter or waitress will weigh it before delivering it to your table.
As our selections arrived at our table Galen and I quickly realized we had run out of room. The only solution? To dive in and start eating! Despite the time of year (February) ingredients were fresh, the veggies were crisp, and each dish offered distinct flavor and a wide variety of tastes from the sharp sweet-tartness of pomegranate seeds mixed with green olives to the smoother taste of stuffed eggplant. The restaurant boasted a great mixture of local business people and tourists which maintained its relaxed and enjoyable ambiance.
We rounded out our meal with a complimentary spiced tea with crushed almonds. It had a rich sweet flavor and absolutely intoxicating aroma. Drinking it was a little bit of a challenge as is usually the case when drinking something with a bit of a crunch – but it served as the perfect preparation before we suited back up and dove into the arms of the waiting snow flurries.
Istanbul Culinary Institute
Located just around the corner from Galata Tower, Istanbul’s Culinary Institute is an absolute delight. With a very clean/modern design and layout it has a fun but quirky ambiance. We ducked in for dinner and despite my initial apprehension over what I expected to be expensive food and tiny portions, I was pleasantly surprised. Be forewarned that the restaurant has limited seating so grabbing a table in high season may be difficult. While the individual plates were reasonably priced, the wine tended to be expensive by city standards. They also offered a set menu which looked fantastic, but was also more on par with the pricing you would expect in this style and genre of restaurant.
Did I mention that the decorations were entertaining? Perhaps I should have said slightly disturbing. While we got a good laugh and solid head tilt out of the artwork on the walls, it may be a bit over the top for some diners. Especially those who lean towards a vegan disposition. As an interesting side note, all of the diners in the restaurant appeared to be American. I heard the gentlemen at the table next to us (what appeared to be a group of American politicos from Washington DC) declare that he had been told the trip to Istanbul was worth it for the food at the Institute alone. High praise indeed!
I honestly don’t recall what exactly I ordered. If memory serves, it was a mixed stew that combined lamb and chicken.This is what arrived and I can tell you that it was delicious, if not earth shattering. The broth was delicious, the potatoes wonderful, the onions sweet as candy. The chicken was tender and flavorful, however the lamb was nowhere to be found. Given it was one of the specials they were offering that evening I’m unsure if it just didn’t make it onto the plate or I misunderstood and the offering was lamb OR chicken stew. Regardless, I obviously was happy enough with what arrived that I couldn’t be bothered to seek clarification.
This was one of the evening’s other specials. It was an interesting mixture of tortilla, fresh fruit and meats. The combination was the type you would never expect to work well when read aloud on paper, but which makes for a delicious combination in practice. As an interesting and random side note – I tried putting a banana in a stew once (similarly inspired), unfortunately that didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as the succulent treat the Culinary Institute prepared for us. Perhaps that’s why I’m a travel blogger and not a world class chef. But to get back on topic – portions are as shown in the pictures so plan accordingly. For those looking for a fun and tasty evening on the town – definitely consider Istanbul’s Culinary Institute as an option. That said, I don’t think I’d fly all the way from D.C. just to try it out – the hole in the walls around Istanbul have much more enticing culinary surprises for those with the time and energy to ferret them out.
Ficcin – Istiklal Avenue
Located on one of the many side streets that splinters off of Istiklal Avenue, Ficcin is an interesting restaurant that occupies a series of small store spaces along the street. Waiters duck in and out moving from one restaurant location to another. As you can see in the photo below the small location we were in only had room for three tables and a small bar. The kitchen was located just around the corner. This added quirk definitely ads to Ficcin’s charm. As far as I can tell there’s no real difference from room (location?) to room, so find one that has a free table and have at it!
The food was largely traditional Istanbul cuisine. The menu was in Turkish so deciphering just what exactly was offered was a bit of a challenge, but there seemed to be a wide assortment of options conveniently priced so that you could easily combine several into a meal that perfectly suited your mood.
One of the things I absolutely love about Mediterranean countries is their usage of rice. While plain rice with a touch of salt and butter is great, mixed rice or flavored rice served as a stuffing is something I can eat until I lapse into a food coma. I opted for a mixture of stuffed vegetables, though which vegetables I ended up with I’m not exactly sure. I believe one was a tomato, two were eggplant, and as for the third? No idea. They were delicious and every bite was loaded with flavor. The biggest problem I ran into was forcing myself to take small bites.
For a bit of added substance I accompanied my stuffed surprises with a bowl of beans and lamb. Apparently beans are one of the things that Istanbul is famous for. As a result, you’ll find varied been dishes on many of the menus around the city. It is even possible to find restaurants that specialize specifically in bean dishes. A bit unusual as a flagship food, but after sampling a variety of different bean plates, one I’ll happily look forward to on my next visit. This particular dish had a slight kick to it which spiced up the flavor of the beans and highlighted the lamb chunks which were tender and melted apart at the light touch of my fork.
Istanbul is a wonderful culinary city with a wide variety of ethnic foods and flavors. The prices are reasonable, the food is almost always brilliantly presented and awash in flavor. It is also an extremely lactose-intolerant friendly city. So, if like me, you have trouble with moderate-high levels of dairy don’t fret! You’ll find lots to eat! I hope you enjoy your visit, and that this post has ignited your curiosity – or dare I say hunger – for Turkish cuisine.
Have a favorite place or dish you discovered during a visit to Istanbul? I’d love to hear about it!